“Universe”: Inspiring Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the voice of HAL

By on May 13, 2015

In 1968, for his space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, famed director Stanley Kubrick put a lot of effort into trying to find the right voice for his HAL 9000, and he tried several actors and even crew members until returning to one of his original inspirations, a 1960 short film by the National Film Board of Canada, Universe, hiring its narrator, Douglas Rain.

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Rain at Stratford in 1968 (©1956-2000 CSTC, found here)

In early drafts of screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke’s story the on-board sentient computer was called “Socrates,” a preferred name to “Autonomous Mobile Explorer–5.” Then, the computer’s name became “Athena,” and Kubrick hired actress Stefanie Powell for rehearsals, but he later dismissed the idea that the computer would be female, and hired, separately, two different actors to voice HAL.

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At first, Kubrick decided on Nigel Davenport, a British actor who had appeared in Look Back In Anger, Peeping Tom and A Man For All Seasons. Davenport worked on-set during filming for a longer period of time, and he would trade lines with Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood so they would have someone to react to. However, Kubrick decided he wasn’t quite right, and sounded “too British,” which didn’t quite work since HAL tells us in the film that he was made in Urbana, Illinois (chosen by Clarke because a college math professor of his had been added to the faculty at the University of Illnois at Urbana; HAL’s creator’s name, by the way, is Dr. Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai).

Clarke, by the way, had chosen the song “Daisy” to be sung by HAL because the same song had been taught to a computer at the Bell laboratory. HAL’s name is supposed to have been an amalgam of “heuristic” and “algorithmic,” the two main processes of learning, and Clarke has repeatedly said that it stood for “Heuristically programmed Algorithmic” computer.

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Once Davenport was no longer on-set, first assistant director Derek Cracknell stepped up to provide the voice of HAL, and even Kubrick is reported to have fed the actors some of the more mundane lines, while still trying to figure out what to do.

Then, during post-production, Kubrick hired actor Martin Balsam — best known as the ill-fated detective from Hitchcock’s Psycho, and as the jury foreman in Twelve Angry Men — to replace Davenport’s dialogue, but Kubrick later decided he sounded too “American” (some sources say he sounded “too New York”). Kubrick is said to have then joked “Maybe it ought to sound like Jackie Mason.”

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During this same time period, Kubrick would occasionally screen the 28-minute black-and-white documentary for some of the crew, including visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, and this article says:

Most of the crew on 2001 were familiar with the Canadian production Universe, all having seen it at the early stages of 2001’s production, it being “required watching” at the insistence of Kubrick himself, who had seen the documentary “almost 100 times.”

Kubrick even hired Universe‘s co-director, Colin Low, and Wally Gentleman, who did optical effects for the NFB documentary, to work on 2001.

Kubrick initially had planned to have Rain — who was primarily known as a Canadian stage actor more versed in Shakespearean plays than sci-fi movies — to read a narration that Clarke had written for the “Dawn Of Man” sequence from the beginning of the film, appearing in the earliest versions of the script (later dropped), but he later decided to have Rain voice all of HAL’s dialogue, telling writer Quentin Falk that Rain’s voice sounded “like the disembodied voice at the end of a long dream.” It took Rain a day and a half to read all of the dialogue, without having the benefit of looking at the film or bouncing lines with other actors, as Davenport had done on-set.

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As for Universe, the documentary begins with a dramatization of the nightly work of Dr. Donald MacRae, an astronomer at the David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill, Ontario, a facility once owned and operated by the University of Toronto, Canada, before shifting to focus on the workings of the universe. A journey to the stars is depicted in animation and takes the viewer to the boundaries of the heavenly bodies: the Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Pluto, to the farthest regions of space beyond the reach of the strongest telescope, past the Sun and the Milky Way into unfathomed galaxies.

“It was a very low-budget affair with ping pong balls,” Rain later remembered, “and the sun, as I recall, was played by a tomato – actually, it came off as very impressive on the screen.”

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There are some unfortunate errors presented as factual — we hear that “Mars almost certainly has vegetation,” and “Venus may have either dense clouds – or dust storms,” (astronomers once believed that dust storms caused Venus’ swirling atmosphere, but spacecraft missions have shown it to consist of mostly carbon dioxide with clouds of yellow crystalline sulfuric acid — Mars is the planet that has dust storms), and “Jupiter has twelve moons”  (there are at least 63 of them) — but perhaps this is what was known in 1960.

The award-winning film was nonetheless a nominee at the 33rd Academy Awards in the category of Best Documentary Short Subject in 1961, and managed to win many other awards, which can be seen here.

Co-director Roman Kroitor, by the way, co-invented the IMAX film system. He died in 2012, and you can read his obituary here, which covers his incredible career as a filmmaker.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.